Tuesday, March 31, 2015

Direct Democracy and UUA “Citizenship” by Rev. Dawn Cooley

I continue to play with the idea of direct democracy and how it might be applied to our Unitarian Universalist Association. There have been 3 assumptions driving my ideas:

Assumption #1: That we want to bring more diverse voices to the table of governance at General Assembly.

Assumption #2: What we have been doing is not working.

Assumption #3: Continuing to do the same thing and expecting different results is the definition of insanity.

My first post on the subject was a thought experiment that engaged the idea that direct democracy might be possible and the benefits it could bring. The second post was about how participation in a UU covenanted community would be one criteria of how to determine “UU Citizenship.”

So what might other criteria for “citizenship” be? Let's add one more assumption:

Assumption #4: One-size-fits-all solutions don't really fit everyone.

With this assumption as an addition to the other three, I propose that we could create several different categories, with individuals being able to choose a subset in which to engage in order to achieve UUA “citizenship”.

For instance, there might be these three categories:
1) Participation in a UU Covenanted Community
2) Financial Contribution to the UUA (at some capacity, tbd)
3) Volunteering 40+ hours per year to the UUA (including regions & districts)

In order to achieve the bar of citizenship, one might need to achieve 2/3 of these categories. Or perhaps #1 would be required and then a choice of #2 or #3. So I might participate in a UU Covenanted Community and then also volunteer on a UUA committee.

It might also be that we have additional criteria and requirements. We are limited only by our imagination.

The central core of this idea is that there would be a list of potential qualifications from which an individual could choose a smaller subset in order to achieve the bar of “citizenship”.

In addition to the benefits already discussed in previous blogs, this methodology for defining citizenship would encourage people to get engaged at the district/regional/national level. With so many of our folks disconnected from such issues, this could be a great advantage to engaging around the issues with which our faith tradition struggles.

Of course, we would need to make sure the bar is high enough that a whole bunch of counter-UU types can't infiltrate the Association and take over – I know this was (is?) a worry for some of our congregations. I have confidence we could find a way to set the bar high enough without being so high as to become a barrier to participation, as well as put in proper precautions to prevent such an occurance.

Some of you might be saying “That is a whole lot to keep track of!” Since I come from a database and programming background prior to going into ministry, I think it is doable and that we should be tracking most of this type of information anyway! Particularly if the UUA were to recommend and provide standardization to covenanted communities for data management, tracking this information could be the least of our worries.

Another objection might be centered around technology from a different perspective: How would we allow these thousands of folks to participate at General Assembly? Technology for offsite participation in our governance is not quite there yet, that is true. But it will be soon – sooner, probably, than we could put this system in place and implement it. And of course, the structure of General Assembly would have to change. Instead of mini-assemblies on-site, for instance, such conversations should be taking place online in the weeks and months leading up to GA, possibly using the same teleconferencing software with which so many of us are rapidly becoming familiar. Possibly even using something akin to the flipped classroom model.

I continue to get more and more excited about this possibility and would love to talk to more of you about it. In the coming months, I hope to be engaging in online conversations about these ideas. If you want to participate in such a conversation, let me know! I look forward to some robust and exciting conversations around what future of participation in our faith tradition might look like.

Monday, March 30, 2015

UU Growth: Alternative #5 to Community Building Strategy

Disclaimer: We are never NOT building a community. Building up the community around what we are doing is an essential part of organized religion. However, we don't have to make that the central piece of what we do, and how we describe what we are doing, and what we are asking people to join us in doing.

Alternative Strategy Five:

We are a church that invites you to make the profound spiritual commitment to the health of the Earth and her people. The planet is in the midst of a catastrophic ecological crisis and she needs people to organize their lives around making a difference in that crisis. So the people in our congregation are doing what they can.  We are involved in public social movement building and legislative advocacy. We've installed solar panels and windmills on our property. We do clean-up projects in our community. Our children take part in scientific experiments and learn about where our tap water comes from.  We partner with communities, often communities of color, who are on the frontlines of pollution and contamination. We reflect on the ethics of earth-care and the spiritual sources of global solidarity.

When we worship we celebrate the interdependence of all life of which we a part. We read the writers who draw meaning from the natural world. We reflect on the ethical requirements of stewardship and the sin of seeking dominion over the Earth. We praise; we lament; we seek inspiration.

Sunday, March 29, 2015

Alternative Growth Strategy Summary

The strategy of "building religious community" was based on the observation that there is a hunger for community, and it UU churches and congregation built a truly welcoming community, people would want to join it.

While it may be true that there is a deep hunger for community, the invitation to join UU communities has not been compelling enough to get a large response. So we have accepted slow and small growth as the best we can do.

Why shouldn't 1% of the US population be involved in some way with UU Congregations?

We need to be making a different invitation to people. Understand that the invitation we make to people is not the same as our overall mission. Reiterating that our overall mission is help people develop spiritual depth and make the world a better place is not the same as a specific invitation to a particular group of people to do something together.

As a way to think about this, I would recommend the following:

(1) Look at your mission statement and strip out of it all talk of being "a community" that
t has certain characteristics or does certain good things.

(2) Think about your congregation and name one or more things that it, or some of it, does well. Does it have a great Faith Development program? Is there a group that shows up for racial justice? Do you worship well? Is your Green group active and vibrant?

(3) Think about those successful ministries. Are they succeeding because they point to unmet needs in the larger community? Are there people out in the community who need them?

(4) Redefine your mission statement as an invitation to the people in your community who want or need to be involved in such ministries. The point is to cut through the clutter and noise of the contemporary culture, you must send a specific invitation. A general statement about who you are will not do. All of the alternatives in this series involve defining the church's ministry more specifically, so that people in the community who share those specific concerns, will want to get involved in the work.

(5) This is the hard part: organize your congregation's programming to make that invitation and to meet the expectations of the people who will respond to it. All your programming: your worship, your children's Faith Development, your adult programming, your youth and young adult programming, your music.  Place Unitarian Universalism as a faith tradition in the context of the invitation you are making.


A Growth Strategy aims at inviting people in the surrounding community (the largest lavender circle above) into the the congregation's network (the blue circle).  


UU Growth: Alternative #4 to the "Community Building Strategy.

Disclaimer: We are never NOT building a community. Building up the community around what we are doing is an essential part of organized religion. However, we don't have to make that the central piece of what we do, and how we describe what we are doing, and what we are asking people to join us in doing.

Alternative Strategy Four:

We are a theological center of religious liberalism. Our purpose is to challenge all theologies and interpretations that oppress and bind the spirit, especially the dominant religions in our community. We teach the long history of insurgent theologies and equip people intellectually and emotionally to declare themselves independent of shame-based, punitive religions. We do not avoid the theological message that conservative religion is aggressively promoting, but engage it head on. We build allies with other religious liberals in other traditions and learn from them. Our culture has always conducted its most important arguments in the language of theology, and our purpose is to be in that conversation and our goal is to change minds. We are not humanists fighting against faith and belief. We are religious liberals fighting against oppressive forms of religion.

Our worship takes many styles: old-school, contemporary, participatory, contemplative, but the purpose is the same: to inform people, including children and youth in age-appropriate ways, about liberal religion, and to prepare them to make meaning out of the events of their lives from that perspective.

Saturday, March 28, 2015

UU Growth: Alternative #3 to Community Building Strategy

Disclaimer: We are never NOT building a community. Building up the community around what we are doing is an essential part of organized religion. However, we don't have to make that the central piece of what we do, and how we describe what we are doing, and what we are asking people to join us in doing.

Alternative Strategy Three:

Our congregation is where you go if you want your children to grow up to be morally and ethically strong and clear AND open-minded and curious about the world of differences. We are really one big, all ages cooperative Sunday School. Our primary purpose is to help families form themselves around spiritually progressive values: multi-culturalism, gender equality, healthy sexuality, right relationships, arts and sciences, etc. Every member, adult, youth and child, contributes to our educational activities. We offer that education/growth experience to every family in our community, regardless of their religious affiliation or none.

Most weeks, we have family worship. Some weeks we have a group field trip. Some weeks we engage is a work/service project or an arts project with an artist. But everything is for families and children and the future. All ages and generations are welcome.

Friday, March 27, 2015

UU Growth: Alternative #2 to Community Building Strategy

Disclaimer: We are never NOT building a community. Building up the community around what we are doing is an essential part of organized religion. However, we don't have to make that the central piece of what we do, and how we describe what we are doing, and what we are asking people to join us in doing.

Alternative Strategy Two:

Our church serves the community in which we live. People come to our church in order to work with the people of our community as they struggle to live and survive where they are. We run food pantries, and free stores, and build houses. We get involved in the local schools and the local library, if there is one. We know our neighbors and everyone knows our minister. Some Sundays we worship in our building, which we have turned into an incubator for community groups, grass roots businesses and other local faith groups trying to get started. Some Sundays we worship in a local park and some Sundays in a vacant lot. Some Sunday we worship with another church in our community.

Our children learn about the realities of their communities and the skills of service.

We don't count members and we don't count attendance on Sunday morning. We count acts of service, acts of kindness, lives touched and people drawn into service. We are more interested in activating volunteers than in converting people to Unitarian Universalism. We don't hide who are, and we always happy to explain our faith.

Thursday, March 26, 2015

UU Growth: Alternatives to the "Community Building Strategy"

Disclaimer: We are never NOT building a community. Building up the community around what we are doing is an essential part of organized religion. However, we don't have to make that the central piece of what we do, and how we describe what we are doing, and what we are asking people to join us in doing.

Alternative Strategy One: 

The purpose of our congregation is to your point of deep connection to the global movement for justice. Your UU congregation will be place where you will hear serious talk about the issues of global justice in all their intersected forms: on a local level, regional, national and global level.  Here you will be invited to participate; here you will challenged, inspired, and educated; here you will sing songs and clap your hands and here you will meet other people in your community who are similarly motivated. Here is where your children will grow into global citizens. We cultivate the virtue of solidarity.We are an institution with a purpose: to contribute to the global movements for justice.

Wednesday, March 25, 2015

UU Strategy: How that Working for Us?

For 40 years or more, UU’s have based on their strategy on this proposition: there is a deep hunger for community out there, and that if we built genuinely inclusive, democratic, welcoming communities, we will grow because we would be feeding such a deep hunger.

How many church websites feature a group picture of the congregation: cheerful smiles, many matching tee-shirts, a visual invitation "to come join our group"?
Abraham Lincoln UU Congregation

How many congregational missional statement explicitly say that their mission is to build a community where all sorts of good things happen?
UU Church of Nora 

How many sermons and worship services directly address the life problems of being in community?

Isn't our transformation strategy that we build a global Beloved Community by building a Local Beloved Community?
The Purpose Statement of the Unitarian Church of Calgary

You can see why UU's of the 70's/80's took up this particular organizational strategy. It is a strategy of the lowest common denominator and the path of least resistance. There was no way to resolve the  theist/humanist argument, without a higher value which could contain both. We needed a strategy that let us put that argument to rest and let us move on. The congregation as "community" was the goal that could contain both theists and humanists..

And in the 70-80's, UU's could not make social transformation that higher value.  We were not going to go all in on a prophetic social justice strategy. Too many Boomers in our congregations were suffering from a form of PTSD about the late 60's/early 70's. They were withdrawing from social movements en masse.  And younger people of the era, the emerging GenXers, were also repelled by the anxious combativeness of that early period. Being "stuck in the sixties" was seen as a kind of mild mental disorder.

And the aggressiveness of the cultural conservative movements had pushed us onto the defensive.

An organizational strategy of building communities/congregations fit with our non-creedal and congregational traditions.

Creating covenanted, healthy, spiritually nourishing, genuinely inclusive, peaceful, and safe communities became our evangelical and ecclesiological method. But now, the strategy of community-building has become so pervasive, it is unseeable.

My question is "How is that working out for us?"

Size-wise, we are about in the same place as we were when we adopted this strategy.

Demographically, we have not broken out of our particular culture. Creating a truly welcoming community turns out to be very hard; the prevailing culture of the founders inevitably shows through and either attracts or repels people who are different. 

It's true that we constantly take in new members, but more come and go than stay.

Further, it doesn't seem that people are actually eager to join the kind of high-commitment community that a typical UU congregation is. We like to think that our congregations are low-commitment communities, but actually they are not. To be a full insider member, you need to commit a lot of time, energy and money to the congregation. I would suspect that a majority of congregational members feel that they are too busy to fully participate in the life of the congregation.

We believe that there is a deep hunger for community out there, but is that really true?

Building community has its own value, but maybe it's time to reconsider whether, as a strategy,  it is enough to change our anemic growth trends.

In the next couple of posts, I will suggest some alternative organizational strategies. 

Tuesday, March 24, 2015

Climate change and the Apocalypse: Who shall be saved?

As a global climate crisis bears down upon us, religious thinkers return to the questions thatdominated the Apocalyptic age: Is the present age doomed, and if it is, who shall be saved?

Salvation did not always mean eternal life in heaven after death. The redefinition of "salvation" as "healing" is even newer.

For a long time, salvation meant who will be spared from God's wrath when God writes the final chapter of human story, in fire and ice and blood.

Some scientists believe that the human
population was reduced to
a few thousand people
100,000 to 70,000 years ago.
There will be human beings who survive even the most disastrous collapse of human civilization. Human beings are creative, and adaptable, and ingenious. Even in the warm and watery future, some humans will survive, and their children will survive.

Who shall be saved? 

Armed Guard outside Davos Congess
Center, the site of the ultra-elite
conference, high in the Swiss Alps.
As it now stands, it is the global elite that will survive. They will migrate to the most habitable places; they will monopolize the resources needed for life; they will deploy the arms to protect themselves from the increasingly desperate masses. Everything we know about the modern arrangements of power tell us that this is true.
 The gated communities in our suburbs are emblems of the global future.

Consider the moral implications of believing that only a few will survive. Does it matter really then, if they die now, or later? If we imagine that even God is indifferent to their suffering, why should we care?

Unitarian Universalists are heirs to a religious tradition that disagrees. We believe in Universal Salvation: all of humanity is a single unit. Our faith is that we share a common fate. For us, the climate crisis is a struggle for global justice and solidarity.

Friday, March 13, 2015

The Longed-For Tidal Wave of Justice"

This is the rough text of the Institute Sermon delivered in Asilomar on Tuesday, February 3rd, to the 2015 UUMA Institute for Excellence in Ministry.

"The Longed For Tidal Wave of Justice."

I am retired; so many things fall away when you retire. You no longer have to be the most mature person in the room, whatever room you are in. You get Saturday night back. But mostly you give up your special chair on Sunday morning. Where should I sit? Sunday morning, I can sit wherever I want. I don’t have an assigned place. I found this so disturbing at first that I joined the choir, just to get my own chair. I like it because, now, I still get to sit up front where people can see me, and, I get to watch people’s faces.

I go to Ann Arbor congregation in Michigan where the issue of marriage equality is still a hot issue. My congregation (and now I am allowed to call it “my congregation”) is served by a minister, Her Holiness, the Rev. Gail Geisenhainer and his Associate Holiness, the Rev. Mark Evens.  Gail is a community leader in Ann Arbor for marriage equality. My congregation is my link to that issue. And, because the rights denied to gays and lesbians intersects with many other oppressions, my congregation is now a link to all of them.

We are a singing congregation. And so, on Sunday, among everything else that goes on, I am given the chance to take a stand with the great struggles of the day, even if all I can do some weeks is stand as “I am willing and able”, sing out with gusto, and clap along. Worship gives us all a place to sit, a place to stand if we are willing and able, a place in the wide world.
We are finding our place, not only in the context of the progress toward marriage equality, but now also in the midst of the “black lives matter” movement, the current phase of the African American liberation movement, the present incarnation of the anti-racism movement.

The BlackLivesMatter Movement is feeding into an open-ended reformation of our ethics: what we do day to day with the people around us, and the demands of this moment in history. Reformation movements are RE-Formation movements. We have been formed by our society; and now we must be Re - Formed (Formed Again!) to live with justice.

30 years ago, in the middle of the Reagan Presidency, UU’s codified our social ethics in six, and then seven, principles.  We made a covenant among our congregations to uphold — we made a promise to each other — that we would promote and affirm those principles.

Those Principles are summaries of our ethical hopes; they are about how we hope to live, how we hope our congregations would be. They are our hopes for the world we want to live in. But,they were not just our hopes, but the hopes of many, many people. We didn’t invent them, we only named them.

At the time we adopted them, UU’s were anxious to define themselves as a distinct identity, how we were unique, that we were Somebody in a culture that thought liberalism passé and ridiculous,and where the conservative megachurches were flourishing and we were not.

The principles we named then can seem pious and wishful thinking, platitudes that a Rotary Club could adopt without controversy. As bold statements of our unique identity, for many UU’s, the seven principles are a little disappointing. 

But time and history changes the meaning of words and statements. 

Those seven principles are not bland generalities anymore.

Today every one of those principles, first six and now seven, is highly controversial. There are actively contested in the public square. They may have been written in a committee, but they are paraphrased on picket signs in the streets all across this country. 

They are no longer, our unique trademark. They summarize the aspirations of millions of people who have never heard of Unitarian Universalism. But we have spent 30 years gathering communities around them; we have taught them to hundred of thousands of people, including children.

Go down the list of the seven principles:
Is not the affirmation of “the inherent worth and dignity” pressed upon us by the reminder that “black lives matter.” 
Are not the fast food and minimum wages workers asserting “justice, equity and compassion in human relations”
Isn’t the acceptance of each other and the encouragement of spiritual growth what the effort to calm Islamophobia is all about?
Aren’t climate change denial and creationism attempts to refute of the free and responsible search for truth and meaning?
Fifty years after Selma, aren’t voter rights still a live question in upholding the democratic process in society at large?
How can we square America’s policies of constant war with our commitment to a world community of peace, liberty and justice?
We promised Respect for the interdependent web, and our government considers whether to permit the Keystone pipeline.  

I am not just saying that our principles have some theoretical application to some of the issues of the day. I am saying that real people from all strata of society are out there fighting for the principles we named, and that we have promised to affirm and promote.


They are our public theology, 

Some people say that Unitarian Universalism lacks a firm theological foundation. Some have said that our extensive social and political activism needs a firmer theological underpinning.

I think that we have more than enough theology; what we need is more theological reflection on what we believe and what it requires of us at this moment of history.

I want to take a minute to talk about the metaphors we use to talk about justice and history. 

Today, walk talk about the arc of the universe. Our Theodore Parker started the story. Think about it. Parker says that somewhere out there, further than he can see, and beyond what he can figure, the moral arc of the universe bends toward justice. Somewhere out there. 
But listen to Seamus Heaney talk about justice and history in a different way.: “But then, once in a lifetime, there comes a longed-for tidal wave of justice, and hope and history rhyme.” 
The Universe bends somewhere out there; but tidal waves come to you. You stand on the shore, and it comes to you. And if you are not ready to turn and sail, or surf, or swim with it, as it tumbles toward you and breaks over you, you will be destroyed. 

There it is: that’s my whole sermon right there. I could sit down now. 

But we are on the forming edge of our lives, so let’s reflect on our promises as this tidal wave of justice tumbles down upon us. 
As I have said, The culture is in the midst of a reformation in social and personal ethics. The reformation in ethics is surfacing as questions of privilege: white privilege, male privilege, cis-privilege, heteronormativity.

It’s personal. It’s about how you, as a person, relate to other persons.

To whom do you defer? 
From whom do expect deference? 
Who do you see as “like yourself’ and who do you see as the other. 
Whose lives matter? 
Remembering that the opposite of love is not hate, but indifference, whose lives do you regard with routine indifference?

We must allow ourselves to be re-formed, re-made at this most personal level of habit and identity. 
But many people lack the spiritual resources, to move beyond just protecting the small relative advantages they have. They are feeling the challenges. But they need to hear many messages of affirmation and love. They need communities that support them, and challenge them and forgive them. They need companions. They need a place to stand as they are able, to clap and sing along.

The Mission and Vision of the Liberal Church in History

A little historical essay about mission and organization in liberal religion: 

For most of its history, the mission of the liberal church was dogmatic and apologeticRead through Channing's arguments with Calvinism; they are designed to educate and persuade. Religious liberalism had some very specific positions on the great theological questions of Christendom. Those questions were important to the people in surrounding communities. The mission of the church was to engage those questions and promote the liberal positions among the members of the community. The method of fulfilling the mission was the weekly worship service, which was primarily an adult educational program. The minister explained the liberal position on the most important questions of life (the theological questions) through the sermon; it was both teaching and preaching.

The authority of the minister was based on his knowledge about theology, church history and biblical interpretation. The minister was the religious educator in the congregation, and he taught the faith. This is why the early Unitarian and Universalist sermons seem so boring and useless to us today. I was thrilled to find a copy of a book of sermons left by Aaron Bancroft, the first minister in Worcester. I was disappointed to find in it a deadly dull series of sermons on his take on the traditional theological questions — not an inspiring word anywhere. In Bancroft's time, they were challenging and exciting, questioning the conventional wisdom of the day. The were dogmatic and apologetic, in the best sense of those words. 

This understanding of the church and the teaching/preaching role of the minister prevailed up to the very recent past. In the liberal church, it had two different forms:

  • In the East and in New England, liberal preachers reinterpreted the Christian tradition for their congregants, constructing new and unorthodox understandings of Christian systematics. One significant reinterpretation of Christian systematics was the Christian Social Gospel. 
  • In the rest of the country, liberal preachers questioned the truth of Christian systematics and constructed a humanist theological tradition.  Humanist preaching was teaching/preaching will still instructional and persuasive. 
What unites these forms was their common purpose in educating the community. Both assumed that the minister was knowledgable and informed about liberal theology and had the role of persuading people to take that point of view.

I want to contrast two possible understandings of mission: one is to disseminate a point of view in the community and the other is to create a congregation of people who share a particular point of view. Of course, neither excludes the other.

In Worcester Massachusetts, the founders of the church said that their goal was "to hear liberal preaching." They formed a church to create a platform, a pulpit, to promote liberal religion. It is interesting that creating, and supporting, the pulpit was much more on their mind than creating a congregation. The church was the joint enterprise of the pew owners, who were the owners. They did not create a general membership list of the congregation, nor write by-laws, nor conduct a joint pledge campaign until more than a century later. 

In the contemporary UUA, the idea that the liberal church was primarily an educational institution teaching liberal religion to the community through the preaching of the minister fell out of favor. The focus of the liberal church shifted to the gathering and sustaining the congregation.

The liberal religious institution morphed into something new: a liberal spiritual co-op, a self-sustaining, self-governing, and self-serving enclave. Its way of being together, its internal functioning, is its message. Its process was its content. It harkened back more to the utopian communities of the 19th century than to the teaching/preaching church. This conception of the church is so dominant now in liberal religious circles as to be unseeable.

We framed the mission of liberal religion as the creation of congregations, an organizational form, rather than the dissemination of liberal religious ideas, values and practices.

Some of the results: insularity, a lack of focus in our educational programs for adults, reduction of social and public ministry as secondary concerns of the congregation, the missing "there there", the intractable financial crisis of congregations, circularity in mission definition, and ultimately, I think, slow growth and stagnation.

Tuesday, March 10, 2015

A Case for Reparations

The Department of Justice report indicates that the Ferguson city government deployed its police forces to extort money from its black citizens. Over the years, millions of dollars in fines were collected through the unequal administration of justice. Court records indicate exactly how much money was extorted from specific citizens.

And what happened in Ferguson, happened in numerous other municipalities in St. Louis County, all of which was equally unconstitutional and equally documented.

The people from whom those dollars were taken are owed them. All of the dubious charges, all of the fines, all of the fines levied because the original fines were not paid on time, all the penalties and interest and court fees need to be returned. Not as a matter of "development funds" or "community investment" or "public policy", but simply because stolen money must be returned from the criminal to the victim, to be used by victims for whatever purpose they choose. It's their money, end of story.

In most states, local governments are the legal creatures of the state government. What level of government chartered the little town of Ferguson, gave it permission to collect taxes, hire police, and set up a court? That level of government owes the people of Ferguson their money back. The city government of Ferguson, and all the other similar towns, need to be put out of business and the reparations they owe their victims (and their heirs) need to be assumed by the state of Missouri. New local governments need to be established that are rationally sized, democratic and constitutional in their place. Call it another Reconstruction. Call it Reparations. Call it Justice and Accountability.

Wednesday, March 04, 2015

dialectical theology

"Theology is about eternal things". Someone once said that to me, objecting to what he called "political advocacy" in church.

And really, I suppose he was right in line with traditional theology. Theology was about the eternal structure of the world: the unchanging God, forever fallen humanity and the question of where each individual will spend eternity. Theology was about the unchanging truths which were to be applied to life. Theology was about the deciphering the current meaning of the timeless truths.

Dialectical Theology, on the other hand, assumes a conversation between the practice of theological reflection and the current state of the world. It assumes that what was once thought of as "eternal truths" and the "unchanging divine order" are, in fact, products of particular times and places. Theology is a summation of what people have conceptualized about the nature of life given their experience.

I recently wrote of the seven principles of Unitarian Universalism:
The Principles are relentlessly positive. They outline a list of social virtues: key nouns in them are words like "dignity", "justice", "truth", "conscience" and "community". 
The Principles never hint at the obstacles to all these virtues. They never indicate why these virtues are not universally practiced already. Oppression is the unacknowledged shadow that falls across their sunny optimism. Consequently, they are not dialectical; they do not situate themselves in the push and pull of actual human history. 
The statement that Unitarian Universalism intends to be an anti-oppressive religious movement is the emergence of our liberal dialectical theology, a theology that contends with the realities of world as we know it. Of course, we have never not been part of the real world, the actual push and pull of human history. It is just that our theological language did not give us the tools to name it.
 I think it is remarkable that the seven principles were codified during the Reagan administration. We knew about systemic oppression at that time. The 70's were a period in which the white Civil Rights supporters were educated about "institutionalized racism". Everything that happened after Selma and the passage of the Voting Rights Act -- the urban uprisings, the assassinations, the election of Nixon on the basis of the white backlash, the rise of movement conservatism -- was an education in the intractability of white racism.

Unitarian Universalism had seen the emergence of our opposite: a conservative religious movement whose methods, beliefs, and public theology were explicitly antagonistic to us. The religious right was explicit about their opposition of the whole liberal project in religion and in society at large.

So why were our Principles so one-sided, so sunnily optimistic?

We can see the choice being made: "we will only talk about what we are for, and say nothing about what we are against, and what is against us." Why did we make that choice? And what were its consequences?

This is a question that dialectical theology asks. In an environment which was rapidly and decisively polarizing, why did we want to get "above the fray?'

Dialectical Theology asks this question: As the culture of the United States turned sharply to the Right for 40 plus years, how did Unitarian Universalism reshape its public theology in response? In what ways, did UUism resist and defy the turn to the Right? In what ways, did we accommodate it? In what ways did it sidestep it? How did we re-conceptualize our essential messages?

So much happened within UUism during the period of conservative cultural hegemony: the end of the humanist hegemony, the rise of female religious leadership, the whitening of our movement, the welcoming congregation movement, the seven principles and six sources, the Gray hymnal, the emergence of CUUPS, and the UU Buddhist fellowship, the re-emergence and renewal of the Christian Fellowship, the awkward passive resistance to the turn back to anti-racism.

How do all these contradictory developments and currents reveal what we know about ourselves, humanity and the world?

Tuesday, March 03, 2015

General Assembly, Class Bias and a Democratic Faith

Registration and Housing reservations for General Assembly opened the other day, which signals the start of the annual discussion of how expensive General Assembly is, and how ordinary people cannot attend because it costs too much. The search for an alternative plan is on, and while the posse is mounting up to chase the unicorn, I have a few thoughts.

And no, I don't believe that the solution is to do away with General Assembly altogether. Yes, I am in favor of having it every other year,if only for the reason that it would give us more time between these discussions. But then I hear that if we have GA every other year, on the off year, we can all gather for some other great purpose -- another Justice GA like 2012 -- which will also be too expensive, so why bother?

The unicorn we are hunting is some magic bullet which will make GA a cheap bargain that more people can attend. It will always cost more than many people can afford, and some of those people will let us know their disappointment.

Let's question the premise: who should go to General Assembly? Our current system is that any UU who wants to and can afford to should go. We take pride in how many people come.

It's not a good system. It's not democratic, except in the most individualistic sense that any one should be free to make their own choices and to make their own voice be heard. It prioritizes self-expression. And when you prioritize self-expression, inclusivity follows along as its corollary. (If going to GA is the way you express your commitment to UUism, then it follows that everyone who wants to make that self-expression should be able to do so, and that all barriers and obstacles to it should be minimized.)

It's a middle-class presumption that every member of a religious faith should be able to attend the national convention of their faith. It presumes that most of the members of the faith are upper middle class and have the resources to do so. If UUism was not such a comparatively wealthy faith, such a goal would never occur to us. I am sure that many denominations of our size, but with less wealth, do not assume that every member of every congregation should be able to go to their national convention.

 And as the middle class is squeezed out, and as UU congregations become more representative of their surrounding communities, the goal of a General Assembly cheap enough to be affordable by any UU who wants to attend becomes more and more unicornish.

We do not become less class-biased by subsidizing poor and working class people to participate as though they were upper middle class. We become less class-biased by structuring our work so that poor and working class people can participate as they are. Unitarian Universalism should be a democratic faith not because any member can go to General Assembly, but because every member votes for and instructs their delegates to the highest governing body of the Association.

General Assembly needs to be cut back to a shorter working convention that does the business of the Association. Who should go? Elected delegates and religious professionals. Churches and congregations are responsible for the costs of their delegations, not in the form of scholarships and subsidies to some, but as a standard practice for all.  (Systems can be devised that share resources between congregations to even out disparities.)

All of the other functions of GA -- the socializing, the educational events and trainings, should be driven down to regional, district, cluster and on-line venues, so they are more accessible and affordable to more rank and file UU's.

Monday, March 02, 2015

Theological Reflection

The First UU Principle states that UU congregations covenant to affirm and promote "the inherent worth and dignity of every person."

Today, the concrete expression of that principle is to say "black lives matter." That assertion is going up on banners on UU churches. Here in Ann Arbor, the congregation has given away over 900 buttons with that message.

How does one get from one assertion to the other? What is the path from the first principle to the present movement. As purely abstract principles, they seem to be born of a different spirit -- one, a universalizing impulse and the other, a particularizing gesture.

There are many explanations out there as to why "black lives matter" is the contemporary concrete application of the "the inherent worth and dignity of every person." I am not going to rehearse that argument, but make the following observation about it.

You can't go from one to the other without acknowledging the reality of systemic racism and oppression in the United States. The reason why black lives must be particularly lifted up is because black lives are systemically devalued under white supremacy.

Question for UU's: is systemic oppression a theological concept, or a political or historic particularity?

My premise is that theological concepts are descriptions of fundamental human experiences and conditions. That people are capable of "love" for one another is a fundamental. That people are social animals is a fundamental. That every person is invested with 'inherent worth and dignity of every person" is a fundamental, foundational theological concept.

Is "oppression" such a foundational concept, without which it is impossible to understand humanity?

Do human societies exist without systemic oppression? Is such a society possible? Is Beloved Community possible, or is it like the horizon, always visible, but never attainable? Jesus said that the Kingdom of God was "at hand", and yet it seems still ungraspable. Despite the enormous contrast between his time and ours, it does not seem that 'oppression' is less a part of the human condition.

My reading of UU theology is that it now rests on three assertions: one is the worth and dignity of each person, the second is the interdependence of everything, and the third is that oppression is an unavoidable part of human sociability. It is to be resisted and opposed and overcome, but it will never go away. It is protean, changing shape and form, but always re-emerging.

I think that this is a learning that we are in the process of acquiring.

If we accept this point of view, then we can look back on the Principles and see them in a different light.

The Principles are relentlessly positive. They outline a list of social virtues: key nouns in them are words like "dignity", "justice", "truth", "conscience" and "community".

The Principles never hint at the obstacles to all these virtues. They never indicate why these virtues are not universally practiced already. Oppression is the unacknowledged shadow that falls across their sunny optimism. Consequently, they are not dialectical; they do not situate themselves in the push and pull of actual human history.

The statement that Unitarian Universalism intends to be an anti-oppressive religious movement is the emergence of dialectical theology, a theology that contends with the realities of world as we know it. Of course, we have never not been part of the real world, the actual push and pull of human history. It is just that our theological language did not give us the tools to name it.